Rothbard Quote of the Day: Theory and History

30 July 2010 at 2:02 pm 3 comments

| Peter Klein |

I stumbled recently upon this passage from Murray Rothbard’s review of Unemployment in History by the distinguished historian John A. Garraty. Rothbard’s review, published in 1978, raised an issue that has come up in previous discussions of the Freakonomics phenomenon (1, 2, 3, 4): Can a little theory, without accompanying real-world knowledge, be a dangerous thing?

After chiding Garraty for writing about unemployment without knowing the basics of business-cycle theory, Rothbard adds:

My strictures against history which lacks any sound theoretical base are not meant to be an act of intellectual imperialism on behalf of economics and against history or other disciplines. Quite the contrary; the economist who ventures into the historical arena armed only with a few equations and mathematical razzle-dazzle has wreaked far more damage than the uninspired and slightly bumbling historian. For the economist, particularly the latter-day “cliometrician,” aims to flaunt his arrogant “scientific” pretensions of encompassing and explaining all of world history by means of a few mathematical symbols. The economist who knows no history understands far less than his opposite number in the historical profession; but his claims are far greater. Therefore, he is much wider off the mark.

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3 Comments Add your own

  • 1. FC  |  30 July 2010 at 8:54 pm

    Extrapolate this, interpolate that, assume a few more things, and you’ve got the value of the barley trade during the reign of Hatshepsut. What could be easier?

  • 2. srp  |  31 July 2010 at 12:27 am

    I really don,t think snarling at the cliometricians makes much sense. People like Fogel have done more to gather important data about the past than whole squadrons of conventional historians, much less the likes of Rothbard.

  • 3. Peter Klein  |  31 July 2010 at 2:08 pm

    Steve, two responses:

    1. The complaint isn’t against cliometrics per se, but bad cliometrics — misusing data, misunderstanding source documents, framing problems incorrectly, all from lack of knowledge of actual history. (See, e.g., the dispute between Greif and Edwards-Ogilvie on the Geniza documents.) The ability to do time-series econometrics doesn’t make one a historian. BTW Rothbard thought highly of some cliometric work, e.g. Bob Higgs’s stuff. Anyway, follow the links to the critique of Freakonomics to see the context here.

    2. Fogel has gathered a lot of data, it is true, but do we really understand railroads, or slavery, better than we did before, say, 1950? As I’m sure you know there is a lot of debate about the value-added of the cliometric revolution.

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